In the age of Peak TV, audiences are finding it hard to keep up with all the new shows touted as must-sees. Are you struggling to filter the Great from the merely good?
This post is part of a series on the current landscape of television abundance and the very best shows out there. If you want to jump straight to reviews of our top picks, click through to The Americans, Fargo and The Leftovers.
The Golden Age
Is there such a thing as too much good TV?
If the incessant recommendations of new shows you just have to watch are starting to stress you out and your Amazon wishlist just keeps getting longer, it definitely feels like it.
It wasn’t always like this.
Remember the good old days of the early 2000’s? That so-called Golden Age of Television? You know the one – it was when we first started hearing the refrain that TV series are so much better than films now. And had you just seen Chicago win the Best Film Oscar the same year that shows like The Sopranos and All-Time Greatest Series In The Multiverse The Wire were airing, you may have been inclined to agree. The stories and characters in these series were just deeper, richer than what cinema offered and their emotional punches landed way harder in the context of a 12-episode season than within the restrictions of the classic 90-minute, three-act movie structure.
It was happy times. Suddenly, hours spent in front of the telly could be justified as a cultural pursuit. If you were out of ideas for Christmas presents you could buy your loved ones a good box set and know they’d be genuinely thankful.
And there really weren’t that many shows to keep up with. Everyone just kept yammering on about the same few series. Even if you were a little behind, you always knew what you needed to watch to be in with the cool kids.
Today? Totally different story. There’s a whole load to keep up with these days.
Last August, FX Network head honcho John Landgraf gave a speech to the Television Critics Association in which he pointed out just how crazy the TV market has become. The convergence of (i) the public’s increasing demand for long-form storytelling and (ii) the proliferation of new distribution models and viewing habits have led to an explosion of original scripted shows. Landgraf dubbed this over-saturated landscape Peak TV.
In the previous Golden Age of TV, all you could really watch was HBO, a couple of other cable channels and the four main US networks. These were the guys that were producing almost all the original scripted content. But now, the sheer diversity of channels has lead to audience fragmentation and, thusly, lower ratings. This, together with the rise of on-demand viewing and Netflix binge-watching means that a show’s (and network’s) success can no longer accurately be measured through viewer ratings alone. Gone are the days of 50 million viewers tuning in on the same day to watch the Friends finale on NBC.
So increasingly, networks are relying on quality content and word-of-mouth to create viewer loyalty. It’s a race to produce as much scripted TV as possible, so shows whose meagre ratings might have signalled their premature cancellation only five years ago instead get picked up and renewed. Everyone’s getting in on the scripted game, from the hordes of specialist channels catering to every niche (see History Channel’s Vikings and Lifetime’s UnReal) to streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.
Let’s look at some numbers.
According to FX’s researchers, there were a whopping 409 original scripted shows produced in America in 2015. And that’s prime-time scripted only (this figure doesn’t include reality TV, game shows or daytime dramas). It’s almost double the 213 shows produced only five years ago. To put it plainly, if 2010’s numbers were represented by a balding man sporting a ponytail and a bowtie, then here’s how today’s Peak TV figures look:
And for you history buffs, that’s over 12 times the number of scripted shows produced in 2002, at the height of the Golden Age Of TV.
But is this actually too much television?
Well yeah, kinda.
Too Much of a Good Thing
The issue is not so much that there’s tonnes of TV now, but that so much of it is so good.
With the quality of network TV rapidly catching up with cable and new players like big streaming services also churning out some of the very best stuff on TV, it’s pretty easy to just kick back and enjoy the abundance of riches now available to us. What Peak TV means for us is more Great shows. But it also means a lot of really good shows.
The problem with this, as Landgraf puts it, is that because of their sheer quantity, good shows often get in the way of the audience finding the great ones. Far from the days in which everyone agreed on The Wire or Breaking Bad being the best thing on TV, today’s Great series are finding it harder to cut through the clutter and create real buzz, he says.
You see this too – hardly a day goes by without your friends, family or colleagues recommending some different show you absolutely must watch.
And it’s easy to see why they’re so jazzed. With the current climate, whatever you’re into, there’s likely to be a decent show to scratch your itch. Even formerly sneered-upon genres like high fantasy (Game of Thrones) and superheroes (Arrow, Supergirl) are treated to high quality adaptations. Every fetish is catered to.
Of course we’re all revved up into a frenzy. I almost peed myself when I heard they were adapting The Flash. It’s The friggin’ Flash!
You’re assaulted on all sides with chatter about this or that new show and it all fades into an indistinct haze. And these series demand a considerable time investment. How do you know which series are actually worth your consideration? With everyone’s attention so scattered across a bazillion shows, and virtually no common conversation points, no consensus as to which series are genuinely All-Time Greats, how can you be sure you’re not missing the new The Wire?
Nerd to the rescue! See, the thing about me is, I have no life. Like a prospector in search of that Deadwood gold, you can count on me to watch anything that pilots. I also have a healthy obsessive-compulsive tendency to catalogue and rank everything according to my Objective (heh) Scales of Greatness.
And because my disappointing friends watch bugger all ’cause they’re all too busy reviewing contracts, I have nobody to talk about this shit with. So instead, I have to hold sad imaginary conversations with all the big TV critics. Which means I need to read them. So yeah. Clearly I’m uniquely qualified to tell you how to live your life.
* * * * * * * * *
I’m going to share the three drama series that, in my very personal opinion, represent the crème de la crème of today’s TV offering. Check out the full reviews by clicking on the links below.
Now, I know you guys are busy so I’ve picked only the shows I believe are well on their way to entering the Olympus of Greatest Shows Of All Time. (You know, together with The Sopranos, my Holy Trinity of Deadwood, Friday Night Lights and The Wire, and the more recent classics Breaking Bad and Mad Men.) Whatever your jam, if you love Great stories you’ll be delighted by the quality of these shows. In my view, each is worthy of the same respect and analysis normally reserved for Great literature. These series have all genuinely enriched my life by providing some of the very best storytelling available in any medium, in any age. I hope they’ll do the same for you
1. The Americans
Frequent topper of best show nobody’s watching lists, FX’s family-drama-meets-cold-war-thriller is the most exciting thing on television. Yes, you can keep your dragons and your midgets.
Created by former C.I.A. operative Joe Weinberg and set in the early ’80s, the series portrays the everyday lives of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, an ordinary couple with ordinary jobs, two ordinary kids and an ordinary home in suburban Washington D.C. – the very model of the American Way. Except they’re not. In reality, the Jenningses are undercover KGB operatives, trained specifically to speak, look and act as Americans in order to spy on US soil. So deep is their cover that in their 16 years of marriage, they have never uttered a word to each other in their native Russian. Even their American-born children are unaware of their parents’ activities, origin and ideology. Their jobs, their marriage, their whole life is a lie.
Or is it? How long do you have to pretend before it stops being an act? How long before the lie becomes truth?
For the full post on why you should side with Mother Russia and watch The Americans, click here.
In an age of Great dramas, FX’s violent, existential black comedy may feature the very best writing on TV. And of my top series of 2015, it’s the one with the most individual elements going for it – a tense, gripping plot, offbeat characters, dark humour and fantastic dialogue. It’s also easily the most cinematic show around, with every episode having the feel of rich texture and scope I associate with a Great movie experience.
For the full analysis of Fargo’s multifaceted genius, click here.
3. The Leftovers
It’s not the funniest show on TV – that’s Veep. It’s not the most exciting show on TV – that’s The Americans. It’s not the best written show on TV – that’s Fargo. Shit, it’s not even the show with most dragons! That, of course, is Dreamworks Dragons – Riders of Berk.
Yet it has a beauty and a spiritual resonance to rival to the Greatest works of fiction. Simply put, in the age of Peak TV, The Leftovers is the very best thing on television.
If you want to know why The Leftovers is my favourite show on TV, click here.